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5 Ways to Thaw the ‘Frozen Middle’ and Boost Sales Performance
Making all of your middle-performing reps even slightly better can lead to big gains for your bottom line.
Posted Jan 27, 2017
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Research from Xactly Insights shows that 79 percent of sales representatives miss quota while 14 percent never achieve even 10 percent of quota. This “frozen middle” presents a real and significant obstacle to sales performance. For companies, the frozen middle can amount to potentially thousands or more in lost revenue and big misses when it comes to sales forecasts.

If you look at your sales team on a bell curve, you’ll see that the frozen middle refers to the center, or bulk, of most teams. They are reps who are not necessarily performing poorly, but are definitely not at the top of their game.

Companies that can shift this group’s performance even slightly stand to benefit from large gains. A recent Accenture and CSO Insights study has found that minor improvements among average-performing salespeople can increase a business’s revenue by as much as 3.2 percent.

In today’s competitive environment, no company can afford to have the majority of their sales team remain underperformers. So how can they improve? Here are five tips companies can implement to start thawing the frozen middle and unlock better performance across their sales teams:

1. Rethink on-boarding and training. Rep on-boarding quite often consists of consecutive days of training, followed by weeks of shadowing other reps. This sounds okay in theory but often is not in practice. For starters, it’s easy to forget information that is crammed in during a small time frame—it is estimated that 50 percent of training is forgotten in five weeks. For many reps, this training “blitz” never fully gets them immersed in the material they need to become a top performer. Offering reps shorter, on-demand trainings will help them digest the material more easily. Moreover, they will have the ability to easily review materials when, where, and as much as they need to get the content down pat.   

2. Promote peer-to-peer coaching. Research shows that companies see an 88 percent increase in productivity when they combine training and coaching (versus 23 percent with training alone). Some of the reps frozen in the middle might be your next stars in the making. Who better to coach them than the star sales reps themselves. For example, have your top reps tape themselves giving their winning pitch and make it available for all reps to watch and learn. Then have those reps frozen in the middle record their own pitch and get feedback from their peers. For some, this may sound daunting, but it’s also one of the best mechanisms to enhance their delivery and message—and hopefully their win rate—with customers.

3. Pay right. Nothing demotivates a rep faster than feeling they are not being paid fairly. For many years, quota setting has been an art. The Big Data revolution, however, is removing the need for arbitrary survey data and “gut feelings” when it comes to compensation planning, thus making it a science. For example, Xactly Insights data has shown that companies that pay competitively at the 75 percentile or higher see 50 percent less rep turnover. Companies need to utilize Big Data intelligence from companies of similar sizes and industries to ensure they are paying reps competitively from the start.

4. Get creative with special incentive funds (SPIFs). With the holiday break mere weeks away, it is not uncommon to see reps lose their focus—especially if the company is not on a fiscal calendar year. SPIFs are a quick way to get the competitive juices flowing and better engage those middle performers to reach their goals. You might consider offering rewards, such as big-screen TVs, double credit toward President’s Club, or elaborate getaways.

5. Analyze, analyze, analyze. The above elements really are only valuable if they are working. It’s critical that companies closely align their training, coaching, and accelerator efforts with the performance of reps to view where alignment exists. Are reps that were previously stuck in the middle improving after taking certain trainings? Are reps that are utilizing specific peer-to-peer trainings getting closer to their quota? Did the SPIF drive the desired outcomes in terms of performance? If not, it’s time to rethink the approach. 

The performance of each sales rep has the potential to push you one step closer to your revenue goal. As such, it’s time to challenge the status quo of the 80/20 rule and push more reps out of the middle of the curve and closer to reaching their full potential. By following these tips, hopefully you will be well on your way to thawing the frozen middle and moving more of your reps to the leaderboard. 


Erik Charles is the vice president of product marketing at Xactly (NYSE: XTLY), a leading provider of enterprise-class, cloud-based, incentive compensation solutions for employee and sales performance management. Named a leader in Gartner’s Magic Quadrant for Sales Performance Management software, Xactly addresses a critical business need to incentivize employees and align their behaviors with company goals.

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